Residential Fire Leaves Burning Questions

Communication is critical during any emergency. The timely and accurate transmission of information from a monitoring center to emergency responders could make the difference between life and death. Oftentimes, we rely on the equipment functioning properly to deliver a rewarding outcome; however, one procedural mistake could begin a catastrophic domino effect that ends poorly for all involved.

A recently released and extensive investigative report reveals a monitoring operator’s miscommunication was partly responsible for a tragedy in which two Contra Costa County, Calif., firefighters and two residents lost their lives during a rescue attempt at a residential structural fire. According to the investigation, the simple error of calling a nonemergency fire district line triggered a chain reaction of mistakes. A second misstep of not relaying correct information on the residential fire immediately placed the call low on the priority list for responders. Precious minutes were lost while the fire consumed the home — and the residents within.

The price of error in this type of situation is too great. Not only can lives be lost and ruined, but the resulting legal ramifications have the potential to destroy an alarm and/or monitoring company. Such incidents also reflect poorly on the entire industry. That’s why it is so critical for providers to follow proper practices and protocols when interacting with emergency responders so situations like this can be prevented from repeating in the future.

‘Alarm’ Results in Critical Delay


In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 21, 2007, an alarm monitoring station in Florida received a motion detector signal from a residential structure in San Pablo, Calif., about 20 miles southwest of San Francisco. The central station operator immediately contacted the residence through two-way voice verification to verify the alarm. Notably, the central station operator asked if everything was all right, and was told that there was fire.

The Contra Costa Regional Fire Communication Center (CCRFCC) received a call from the alarm representative; however, the call came in on a nonemergency line, giving it an automatic low-priority rating.

“I’m calling to report a fire alarm,” the alarm operator told the emergency dispatcher. After obtaining the address and callback numbers, the dispatcher placed the call on hold to answer higher priority 911 emergency calls. The call remained on hold for nearly 5 minutes.

When a second dispatcher retrieved the call from the alarm monitoring company, the operator again reported a fire alarm, never once mentioning the she (the operator) had been told by the resident that there was an “actual” fire at the home.

According to a Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (CCCFPD) report, the emergency dispatcher, following standard practice, called the residence to verify the alarm. When the initial call came back with a busy signal, the dispatcher made a second attempt but there was no answer. CCCFPD Engine 70 (E70) was dispatched to the residence in response to the fire alarm.

Nearly 12 minutes after the initial alarm was received by the alarm operator, a 911 call came through to the emergency dispatcher. It was the resident reporting her home was on fire and her husband was still inside. The incident, which was initially called in as a fire alarm, had now been upgraded to a full-blown structural fire.

According the CCCFPD investigation report, a series of mistakes — from both the alarm monitoring operator and the fire department — resulted in the deaths of both residents and two firefighters. While the CCCFPD has released its investigative report, the ongoing legal case will reveal what steps were missed along the way, and who was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. Regardless, several flaws were identified that can now serve to improve the practices of alarm companies and firefighting agencies alike.

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